Pam Stenzel is an abstinence-only educator notorious for her yelling, slut-shaming and claims without a factual basis. But her scare tactics are only one example of how young people are being taught about sex in the state of Texas.
“If you have sex outside of that context, you will pay,” Stenzel said in one of her speeches. “No one has ever had more than one partner and not paid. That drug, that hormone, that pill, that shot that this girl is taking has just made her 10 times more likely to contract a disease than if she were not taking that drug.”
I still remember sitting through an abstinence-only presentation in my ninth-grade health class. The presenters lined up 10 boys next to a girl, and one-by-one each boy tore a piece of a pink cardboard heart. “This is what will happen to your heart if you have sex with 10 people,” said one of the presenters as the girl, embarrassed and confused, held up the remnants of her “heart.” No consideration was given to the boys’ hearts, nor was there a discussion of healthy relationships or safe sex.
A 2007 report from the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund — Just Say Don’t Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools — showed that sex education in Texas regularly contains factual errors, perpetuates lies and distortions about condoms and sexually transmitted infections, uses shaming and fear-based instruction and promotes stereotypes and biases based on gender and sexual orientation.
After speaking with UT students, the general consensus was that they had received little to no sex education in school or that teachers had tried to shame them into not having sex. This lack of information about sex and learned stereotyping can continue into adulthood.
Those students that grew up in Texas and remembered some sort of sex education told me about exaggerated photos of sexually transmitted infections that are often used as scare tactics to discourage teenage sexuality. Not only do those photos and the tone of the lessons unfairly shame students in the class who may already be living with a sexually transmitted infection, but they also create a world where students assume they will know if they’ve been infected.
I frequently hear students say they would know if they’ve been infected and thus won’t get tested. Despite what those slide shows may have portrayed, most sexually transmitted infections have no symptoms. For example, chlamydia, which is easily curable with antibiotics, is known as a “silent” infection according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because most infected people don’t show any symptoms.
In all actuality, having a sexually transmitted infection does not make one incapable of having a romantic relationship or being loved. It does not make one dirty or forced to live a life of shame.
How can we begin to challenge topics in college, such as slut-shaming, misinformation about sex or stereotypes about gender, if those lessons have been taught to us through our education system?
Luckily, people like Katelyn Campbell, student body vice president at George Washington High School in Charleston, W.Va., exist. She was recently threatened by her principal for standing up against an assembly led by Pam Stenzel, who reportedly told students that, “if you take birth control, your mother probably hates you,” and, “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.”
“No one should have to feel alone or afraid of repercussions for doing the right thing,” Campbell told ThinkProgress, an American political blog. “If I was able to succeed in the socially conservative state of West Virginia, then anyone can.”
Rather than invoking shame, lies and pink cardboard hearts, people of all ages deserve information that allows them to make healthy decisions, free of coercion and peer pressure. Whether you start having sex at age 17 or 78, most people will have sex at some point in their lives. Medically accurate sex education — free of stereotypes and stigmas — that promotes healthy relationships, is something we all deserve.